Payal Bhatti, a young district level gold medallist from Greater Noida – was unaware of her exceptional sporting abilities. That was until her parents enrolled her into a government school with proper sanitation facilities. For the longest time her parents didn’t let her go to school simply because their daughter would either be compelled to use the same toilet as the boys or go out in an open space. Payal was losing out on the opportunity to study and pursue her sport because her school had unhygienic toilets with no access to water. 

India is a signatory to many international conventions for education and also committed to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal (2000), one of which is ensuring free primary education to all children by 2015. Taking this a step further, the government launched several initiatives including National Program for Education of Girls at Elementary Level (NPEGEL) in 2003 and Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya Scheme in 2004. The Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) emphasised on education to a girl child. What we need to focus on though, are the barriers that stop them from getting enrolled in schools. So while SSA has ensured that the girl-child enrolment in schools have risen significantly, retention rates and attendance are still abysmal. As per Population Census of India 2011, our literacy rate has shown an improvement of almost 9 per cent in the last decade, but the female literacy rate is still at 65.46 per cent  as compared to male literacy rate of 82.14 per cent. The proportion of girls not enrolled in schools or drop-out rate is much higher than that of boys. Besides the socio-cultural context, one of the biggest challenges that keep young girls away from schools are the infrastructural loopholes. Lack of sanitation facilities and drinking water in schools raises concerns among parents about their daughters’ safety and dignity. 

The Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Coca-Cola’s NDTV Support My School under a private-public partnership is a good step in this direction. Construction of toilets is a key focus area of the Swachh Bharat campaign. Having basic sanitation facilities can help retain girls in school. Getting girls back to school calls for concerted efforts from all stakeholders including gram panchayat representatives, community self-help groups, government and non-government organisations as well as institutional partners. School enrolments can also be promoted through conditional incentives. Rewarding students based on their attendance and participation could arrest high drop-out rates. The problem needs to be addressed at its roots where we create awareness about the declining child sex-ratio, gender discrimination, and reproductive rights of women, pre-natal diagnostic and termination-of-pregnancy laws. 

The State of Kerala is an ideal example in gender development. With the highest overall literacy rate of 93.91 per cent as per Census 2011, Kerala ranks first in female literacy rate with 91.98 per cent. Over 94 per cent of the rural population has access to a primary school within 1 km, while 98 per cent of population benefits one school within a distance of 2 km. Besides that, access to higher educational institutions in cities for rural students is facilitated by widely subsidised transport fares. Access to education has also reduced the infant mortality rates in Kerala, bringing it down to seven deaths per 1000 births in 2012. There is greater awareness among people about approaching health centres for deliveries. Studies suggest that as many as 98 per cent of deliveries in Kerala take place in hospitals, compared to 70 per cent in other states. 

Women’s education can play a significant role in driving economic growth. A recent study by McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) titled ‘The Power of Parity: How equality for women could drive $12 trillion in global growth’ points out that if participation of women is on par with that of men, it can help to boost the GDP anywhere between 16 per cent to 60 per cent, by 2025. India has a long way to go in order to establish gender balance. Women account for 23-24 per cent of the entire workforce of the nation but generate only 17 per cent of the share of GDP. Educate will be a powerful tool to bridge this divide and integrate women into the financial mainstream. Educating and empowering women have shown multiplier effects. The World Bank states that educated women are healthier, actively participate in the workforce, earn more and are likely to provide better healthcare and education to their children. This growth is passed on across generations and helps develop entire communities. 

It’s simple. If we are looking at economic growth, it is time we get serious about not just getting girls back to school but ensuring that they make the most of that opportunity. 

Mr. Kulwant Singh is an Advisor at UN-HABITAT (United Nation Human Settlements Programme)